Public briefing planned Tuesday on proposed Harford fire agency

The public and the Harford County Council will get their first detailed explanation Tuesday of the county's plan to establish a new department to oversee some aspects of the county's private fire and emergency medical services system.

A briefing on Executive Order 12-8, which creates the new Harford County Department of Emergency Services, is scheduled for 6 p.m. in the county council's chambers at 212 S. Bond St. in Bel Air.

The briefing will take place before Tuesday's regular council legislative session and, for many of the council members, it will be their first opportunity to hear directly from the administration why the new department is necessary and what Harford County Executive David Craig expects to accomplish with it. The same holds true for rank and file volunteer members of the fire and EMS service who, while they have been briefed by their leaders about the new agency, have not received any direct information about it from the county.

County spokesman Bob Thomas said the briefing will take about 30 minutes, during which three to four people will speak about the new department. He said Craig will be present but did not know if the county executive will be one of the speakers.

"The plan is to give people an awareness of what it does and to hear from those who support it," Thomas said of the executive order creating the department. "We want to put forth an outline to them [the council, public and fire service members] and explain why this is needed."

Craig first proposed the new department in November, but his proposal has since undergone several revisions, the first after fire company leaders strenuously objected to wording that would have given the department control at fire scenes. Those concerns prompted members of the county executive's Public Safety Commission and County Council President Billy Boniface to work with the fire service leaders to remove those objections and to re-craft the executive order.

Craig's people have since said having command and control over fire scenes was never the county executive's intent and that the offending language was a drafting mistake. In addition, what was originally proposed to be department of public safety was renamed emergency services, after the county sheriff and other local police agencies objected

From the beginning, Craig has said he wants the county to have more say over and accountability for the $10 million to $12 million the county gives the 12 private volunteer fire and EMS companies annually for their operations and equipment. Some fire company leaders are calling the new department a "split system" of county and fire service oversight. Most have endorsed the executive order, albeit with some reluctance.

The executive order states that the county will appoint a director of emergency services who "shall be responsible for the oversight of the affairs of the county in: providing high quality Fire/Rescue protection, prevention, suppression, training and quality assurance; providing high quality Emergency medical services delivery, training and quality assurance; volunteer fire company funding, support and coordination; and all aspects of Emergency Services."

It was this version of the executive order that trustees of the Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association Inc. voted unanimously to endorse last month. The association is the umbrella organization for the 12 fire and EMS companies.

The proposed department is just the latest step in an 18-month effort by Craig to achieve more financial oversight for fire companies and EMS services. Harford is the largest county in the state with an all-volunteer fire service. The county has a partially paid EMS service to which the government makes an annual appropriation, but that service is run by a private foundation with ties to the fire and EMS association. Many fire and EMS companies still run their own ambulance services, as well.

Craig previously insisted that each fire and ambulance company sign a memorandum of agreement to provide annual audited financial statements to the county. All the companies eventually signed, although the leaders of some had initially said they wouldn't.

The county executive also established a Public Safety Commission to look at long range issues affecting fire and EMS services. That panel was established over the initial objection of many fire company leaders and from the county council, as well, which felt it hadn't been property consulted beforehand.

More recently, the county executive imposed a ban on the fire companies using their county funding allotments to buy new equipment until countywide specifications and procurement procedures are established for such acquisitions.

Despite the county executive's desire for additional financial oversight, Thomas said there is nothing in the executive order that gives the new emergency services department control over the money individual fire and EMS companies receive from health insurers or individuals when they provide emergency medical care and transport.

"The department won't have any control over ambulance billing and EMS service providers," Thomas said. "That is a matter between the citizens and the insurance companies and the fire companies."

Thomas added, however, that the Public Safety Commission is studying the entire emergency medical services system in the county to determine "what is needed and to project the cost of these services and how we are going to pay for them in the future."

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